Monday, April 13, 2020

Australian Higher Education Relief Package for COVID-19

The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Education
The Australian Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, and the Minister for Employment, Michaelia Cash,  announced a Higher Education Relief Package, in response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus, 12 April 2020. Overall the intention of the package is good, but some of the details will need considerable work. Andrew Norton has produced a very useful commentary on this, but here are some additional comments of my own.

The package envisages Australians studying online to improve their job skills, while waiting for pandemic control measures to be reduced allowing a general return to work. Areas of study mentioned are nursing, teaching, health, IT and "science". Short, online courses, from universities and private providers will be subsidized, from May for six months (initially). Strangely missing from the list of areas of study is any specific mention of engineering, or manufacturing, given the need for Australia to rapidly produce strategic products to meet the current emergency.

The announcement refers to the short courses being from "world-class universities", but presumably that is a rhetorical flourish and the intention is not to limit the program to the top half dozen Australian research universities which rank highly internationally. That would be unfortunate as it is the lower ranking regional teaching universities which have more expertise and experience with online learning in Australia. I studied how to do online learning (via online learning),  at the University of Southern Queensland, which while providing good courses and is highly regarded in that field, is not a "world class" university.

In addition, government funding for universities will be "at current levels, even if there is a fall in domestic student numbers". There is no offer of government funding to make up a shortfall in international student fees.

How the new funding for short courses will be administered is not detailed in the announcement. It should be remembered that previously about $2.2B was paid to private trainer providers for courses of dubious quality, or in some cases, not delivered at all. While "innovative micro-credentials delivered flexibly online" is a worthy goal, there are no agreed definition as to what a micro-credential is. Micro-credentials are not currently part of the Australian Qualifications Framework, and some have formal coursework, while some do not. Short courses can range from one hour's study, to about the length of a typical university unit (about 100 hours).

I have worked in this area of education for ten years, designing and delivering short online courses. I have been involved in several micro-credential projects and on professional standards bodies overseeing these, presented papers at international conferences, given evidence to a Senate inquiry, and  blogged on the topic, but I am still not sure what a micro-credential is. Or it may be that micro-credentials mean many different things to university, and vocational providers. 

I suggest universities should take a cautious approach to micro-credentials, due to the high reputational risk from over-promising. As an example, it is common for universities to offer short courses which do not count for credit towards a degree, are not aligned with the AQF, and are not specific to a job. However, a "micro-credential" is clearly intended to be a type of credential: that is a qualification. In the context of the government announcement, by issuing this qualification, the university has certified the holder has the skills needed to undertake a specific workplace task. Universities cannot use disclaimer to say the credential is not a credential, and those so qualified are not qualified.

One way I suggest universities can navigate this legal and ethical minefield, is to integrate short courses in existing AQF qualifications. As an example, in 2016 I set out to design a teaching course for IT professionals. Teaching is a recognized skill in the computing discipline internationally. Australian universities are accredited to provide degrees under well established national procedures. So what I proposed was to create a teaching course within that framework. This way the familiar quality controls of the university system and professions could be applied.

To make a university course into a set of "micro-credentials" I proposed dividing it into three or four parts, with each part aligned with a set of externally defined skills. A student would receive a micro-credential for completing each part. Those who completed all the micro-credentials would receive one course credit towards a degree.

None of this will be new to the vocational education sector, which has been routinely producing nationally standardized job relevant short courses for decades. However, this is a new skill for many university educators (some of us are dual qualified in by VET and university sectors).

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